King Edward VI after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1542. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.
LONDON.- Hidden portraits – and even a dead animal – have been discovered lurking underneath some of the most iconic portraits of the Tudor monarchs. They are revealed for the first time in a major display opening at the National Portrait Gallery on Friday 12 September, it was announced today (Thursday 11 September).
Among the revelations in The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered (12 Sept 2014-1 Mar 2015) are a hidden portrait of Elizabeth I which was overpainted in the eighteenth century and a bug trapped in varnish in the Gallery’s portrait of a young Edward VI. The original portrait of Elizabeth I, revealed by x-radiography, shows her wearing an elaborate costume with large ‘wings’ around her head. This was almost completely overpainted in the eighteenth century to create the ‘prettified’ image we see today. Tree-ring dating has shown that the wooden panel of the portrait was made from a tree that was felled after 1604, just after Elizabeth’s death.
Dr Tarnya Cooper, Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery and Principal Investigator of its Making Art in Tudor Britain project, says: ‘Elizabethan portraits were rarely appreciated as art objects in later centuries, but Elizabeth’s reputation as a Protestant champion meant that there was still demand for her image. As a result artists often reworked original portraits into images that adhered to contemporary notions of beauty’.
Edward VI, by unknown English artist, c. 1547 © National Portrait Gallery, London
While undertaking technical analysis of the Gallery’s portrait of the young Edward VI – one of three portraits whose conservation was funded by the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Art Conservation Project – conservators discovered not another painting but a real animal. It is thought this highly unusual find at the top edge of the portrait is a beetle (thought to be a fungus or a plaster beetle). Making an appearance during a varnishing treatment, possibly in the eighteenth century, and prior to the Gallery’s acquisition of the painting, the creature then got trapped in a newly sticky coating. This varnish has now been removed as part of the conservation treatment and the portrait can be seen afresh showing details, not easily identifiable previously, such as the boy king’s pale eyes and individual hairs, and the delicate pinks of his collar and flesh tones.
Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist, early 17th century with 18th century overpainting. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.
Queen Elizabeth I, by unknown continental artist © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’), by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth I, associated with Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Research on another portrait of Elizabeth I, the ‘Phoenix’ portrait, associated with the artist Nicholas Hilliard, has shown that the position of the face was moved during the painting process, and a second set of features can be seen faintly beneath the surface.
Henry VII, by unknown Flemish artist, 1505 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Other highlights include, from Westminster Abbey, the rarely-loaned painted plaster and wood bust, once part of a life-size effigy of Henry VII, attributed to the renaissance master Pietro Torrigiano, and made for the king’s funeral procession. The life-like quality of the head is quite unlike previous portrait sculpture made in England as it was modelled in plaster from the dead king’s face. The image is likely to provide the most realistic surviving portrait of the first Tudor king. Italian artist Torrigiano used the death mask again when he cast Henry’s figure in gilt bronze for the king’s tomb.
Highlighting groundbreaking new research undertaken as part of Making Art in Tudor Britain project and fully detailed in a major accompanying book, The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered (12 September 2014 – 1 March 2015) will allow visitors to rediscover the Tudor monarchs through the most complete presentation of their portraiture staged to date. This face-to-face encounter will be enhanced by the display of a single prized possession of each monarch, from Henry VII’s rosary to an exquisite ring owned by Elizabeth I.
The paintings include the Gallery’s oldest portrait, that of Henry VII, which will be displayed with a Book of Hours inscribed by the king to his daughter; no fewer than six portraits of Henry VIII together with his rosary on loan from Chatsworth; portraits of Edward VI and a page from his diary in which he reports his father’s death; five portraits of Mary I combined with her Prayer Book loaned from Westminster Cathedral; and several portraits of Elizabeth I displayed alongside her locket ring, a rare loan from Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence. The search for a ‘real’ portrait of Lady Jane Grey in the sixteenth century will also be discussed through the display of a commemorative portrait of Jane that dates from the Elizabethan period.
The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered will form the core of a larger exhibition organised in partnership with Réunion des musées nationaux – Grand Palais at the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, in 2015.
Many of the portraits on display have been examined as part of Making Art in Tudor Britain in which the use of scientific analysis has resulted in new discoveries and insights into the dating, technique and production of Tudor portraits. This important research has allowed the Gallery to ask fundamental questions about how, when and why portraits were made, and revealed new information about these familiar faces. A specially commissioned app allows visitors to access this research in the display space, and to discover the preparatory marks of the artist that lie beneath the surface, which are revealed through x-radiography and infrared reflectography.
The scope of the research, which covers a long historical period, has also allowed the Gallery’s team of curators and conservators to learn more about the practices of painters’ workshops, changes in artistic techniques and the influence of foreign artists in England. Further information on the findings from the Making Art in Tudor Britain project – including new research on over 100 Tudor and Jacobean portraits – is available online at http://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain.php
Dr Cooper says: ‘This special display is the result of research on our sixteenth century collections over the last seven years and will bring together some of the most important portraits of all the Tudor monarchs revealing how paintings were made and changed at later dates. Visitors will encounter multiple lifetime portraits of each monarch providing a fascinating and vivid impression of one of the most dynamic dynasties in history.’
Mary I, by Hans Eworth, 1554 © Society of Antiquaries of London
Henry VIII, Studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540–1550 © National Trust images/Derrick E Witty